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  • Writer's pictureKaryn Farrell

Lisbon & Sintra: a tale of two cities

Updated: Aug 21, 2023


Ah Lisbon. You were every bit as lovely as everyone said you were. A city like no other with impossibly hilly streets lined with brightly painted houses topped with terracotta roofs. Mazes of tiny alleyways are transformed into outdoor museums, adorned with intricate ceramic tilework (azulejos) and elaborate street art. Winding lanes open out onto magnificent squares, their pavements embellished with black and white mosaics (calçadas), while all roads seem to lead down to the twinkling River Tejo. Part edgy, part grandiose, it's a city that constantly surprises.

With day upon day of endless sunshine and glorious blue skies, life in Lisbon is made for alfresco living. From pavement cafés to outdoor kiosks, from rooftop bars to countless miradouros (viewing points), everything happens in the great outdoors. With that in mind, we spent our first morning pounding the pavements of the Alfama neighbourhood to take in some of its key sights on foot.

Our first stop was the majestic Praça do Comércio. Entering the square on the northern side through the magnificent Rua Augusta arch, it makes a striking first impression. Lined with striking yellow buildings on three side, the square opens out on the south side to expansive views across the estuary of the Tejo river, (or as we know it, the Tagus).

Standing on the waterfront we caught our first glimpse of the iconic Ponte 25 de Abril, the longest suspension bridge in Europe. Think it looks familiar? It was designed by the people responsible for the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Overlooking the bay is another iconic Lisbon landmark: the statue of Cristo Rei or Christ the King, inspired by its Brazilian predecessor, Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.

Praça do Comércio


What we hadn't banked on was our visit coinciding with the pope's, and with one million (no, this is not an exaggeration...) young delegates from the World Youth Day international convention descending en-masse in the city for the dates of our stay. For the next five days, it became impossible to avoid the hordes of flag-wielding, all-singing, all-dancing teenagers from all corners of the world, as they, quite literally, took over every inch of the city. From morning until night, Praça do Comércio was transformed into a Holy Glastonbury of sorts, with an enormous stage for speakers and performers, and with an enormous PA system booming out some truly terrible religious tunes until the wee small hours. I've never been more grateful for triple-glazed windows. Beautiful as it is, the plaza became a place to avoid over the coming days.

Rua Augusta Arch, Praça do Comércio


Through the arch, we fought our way up Rua Augusta, the main pedestrianised shopping street in Lisbon. A street thronged with tourists, this is one to be avoided in my book, unless high-street shopping is on your agenda. Next stop was the lovely Praça do Rossio (formally known as Praça Dom Pedro IV) - one of the city's main plazas, and one of its buzziest. Recognisable by its trippy mosaic cobbles that seem to undulate beneath your feet, this is one to avoid after a few glasses of the local vinho verde.

The square is home to the neoclassical Dona Maria II National Theater, and a monument to King Pedro IV, standing tall between two monumental baroque fountains

From here we made our way to Praça dos Restauradores, a large square commemorating Portuguese independence in the 17th century after sixty years of a shared king with Spain. A 30-metre high obelisk takes centre stage with two bronze figures on the pedestal depicting Victory and Freedom. The entire square is paved in a distinctive black & white geometric pattern. It's quite beautiful.

Dominating the square is a building known as the Eden Cinema, now unfortunately operating as an aparthotel. Built in 1929, it is an Art Deco masterpiece, with its clean lines, perfect geometry and iconic font. Interesting fact: its lavish interior was as one of the set locations for the Wim Wenders film Until the End of the World, transformed into a Russian hotel.

If your legs are still up to it, continue uphill through leafy, tree-lined Avenida da Liberdade with its intricately mosaiced pavements. Known as the capital's grandest avenue, it's also apparently the most expensive street in Portugal to rent or buy property. Not a surprise really when you note the number of high-end designer stores lining the streets. For us, its trees provided a much-needed reprieve from the searing midday heat, and happily there were plenty of benches dotted along the route for a much-needed breather. And just FYI, the Avenida metro station is located at the top of the street, if walking is no longer your friend.


Practical Tip:

Now is probably a good time to mention the Lisboa Card, something we found invaluable for our trip. The card provides unlimited use on all public transport including buses, metro and trams, as well as free access to 38 museums, monuments and places of interest, and discounts on entry to other key sights. Sights included for free are the Jeronimos Monastery, Belém tower, the Pilar 7 Bridge Experience and the Santa Justa Elevator. If you've only got a few days in Lisbon, and want to see as much of the city as possible, the card is ideal and convenient, meaning you can hop on and off public transport, covering more ground than would be possible on foot.

Lisbon's hills have to be seen (and walked...) to be believed. I love nothing more than exploring a city on foot but with high humidity and temperatures hitting the late thirties by midday, those hills can soon start to feel like conquering Everest. If you've wondered why Google Maps is telling you it will take twenty-five minutes to walk one kilometre, this is why. So with all this in mind, we opted for the 72-hour Lisboa Card. We were still averaging 13kms walking each day, but the card gave us the freedom to explore the outer limits of the city. Pricing is as follows:

24 hrs : €22 | 48 hrs : €37 | 72 hrs : €46 - everything else you need to know is here

Belém docks


Lunch on day 1 was Casa do Alentejo, a casual spot favoured by locals specialising in the cuisine of the Alentejo region (unsurprisingly...) Located in the Chiado area between Praça do Rossio and Restauradores, they serve up rustic food in hearty portions so come hungry. Their chickpea and cod salad had enough garlic to kill a man (or at least a man's libido...) but was very tasty, washed down with a crisp white wine from the region. The Pica Pau pork dish got the thumbs-up too, Great value for money too. Bill came to €31 in total including bread, a glass of wine, two beers, water and a coffee.

Casa do Alentejo, R. das Portas de Santo Antão 58



Monastery of São Vicente de Fora

To escape the crowds in the Baixa area, we headed for the peaceful surrounds of the São Vicente monastery. Or so we thought. We waited in the searing heat as tram after tram passed by, full to capacity with visitors. Charming and cute as those trams may look, they are tiny and often just one carriage so it doesn't take long to fill up, especially on the popular routes like the 28 or 15. Just something to bear in mind. Losing our patience, we jumped in a tuk-tuk, happy to pay the €15 fee to get to our destination in less than ten minutes. Weaving in and out of traffic, our driver whisked us at top speed up hills and through the streets. A little bit hairy but fun nonetheless.

We emerged with somewhat shaky legs at the front of the impressive 17th century Church of São Vicente de Fora, its perfect white facade gleaming in the sun. Entrance to the monastery is to the right and for a mere €5 fee, you have access to one of the best viewing points in the city. Without the crowds.

We wasted no time and headed straight for the rooftop. All I can say is - wow!!! I audibly gasped as we stepped out on the vast terrace revealing panoramic views across the bay. On one side we were treated to what has to be the best vantage point of the stunning National Pantheon, an elegant 17th century Baroque masterpiece. Its white stone exterior appeared almost luminous against the blue waters of the Tejo, surrounded on both sides by the red rooftops of the Alfama neighbourhood.

On another side we peered down into the courtyard of the monastery below, its upper walls decorated with traditional blue azulejos (painted ceramic tiles). A lower terrace offers yet another picture-perfect view: burnt-orange tiles complement beautifully the intricate patterns of the azulejos on the walls with the blue waters of the bay as a backdrop.

Inside you'll find a series of rooms showcasing the largest collection of Baroque azulejos under one roof.

Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, Largo de São Vicente | Getting there: Tram 28. Or a tuk-tuk.



Miradouro da Senhora do Monte

There are multiple viewing points dotted throughout Lisbon but according to our friendly tuk-tuk driver, this is the place to come for the best views of the city. We concur. Located in a churchyard, this is the highest point in the city with a seating area and viewing platform to take in the full expansive panorama.

It seems to attract less tourists than some of the other spots, perhaps because of the verrrrry steep hill to get there, but this is the place to come for a perfect view of the castle, Castel Sao Jorge. People in the know came prepared with snacks and drinks to sit and enjoy the views as the sun dropped low in the sky, and a musician entertained us all with some funky samba and reggae tunes.

Miradouro da Senhora do Monte, Largo Monte, 1170-107



Secret Garden LX

Just down the hill from the viewing point lies one of the city's secret bars: the Secret Garden LX. The entrance is not signposted: following the directions on Google Maps we tentatively make our way into what looks like someone's private residence until we hear the sound of animated chatter. And voila: through the overhanging trees and plants we glimpse a bar. A groovy little bar with tiled floors and an overhanging terrace to take in some of the most fabulous views of the red-rooftops of the city. Drinks are cheap as chips and the cocktails pretty potent. Staff are friendly and the atmosphere is buzzy. A great find.

Secret Garden LX, Largo Monte, 1170-253



The Decadente

Dinner that evening was in the trendy surroundings of The Decadente in the Bairrio Alto. On a balmy August evening, we were happy to be offered a table on the gorgeous outdoor courtyard, with an excellent view of the open kitchen. As first dinners in a new city go, this one was pretty much perfect. We heroically allowed ourselves to be guinea pigs for a new cocktail they were trying out that night - the Busy Bee: gin-based with a citrusy kick but with an underlying honey sweetness. Busy Bee got a massive thumbs-up from us.

As in the growing trend, dishes were a mix of small and large plates, designed for sharing. As someone who always wants to try everything on the menu, this type of dining experience suits me down to the ground. They recommend two to three plates per person. I would suggest two, leaving room for dessert, as the portions are very generous. We snacked on the sourdough bread with Azores smoked butter. Oh my! Trust me you do not want to skip this.

We opted for the following: nectarine salad with cottage cheese, Iberian Black Pork “Secretos” in a mussel broth with smoked Shitake mushrooms; confit of hake on a bed of shredded veg and mash, and, the star of the show, Decadent’s Fried Chicken, served with a coriander and Piri Piri Sauce. Surely this is a sign of how impressive a restaurant can be - if you can serve up something as standard as fried chicken, but elevate it to something akin to fine dining, then you've got my vote. It was utterly divine and I will dream about that sauce until I die. I scooped every last bit of it out of the bowl with my finger while our server smiled conspiratorially.

Their wine list was another high point offering a small but carefully chosen selection of low-intervention wines from small producers. Prices start at a reasonable €19 for a bottle with glasses available from €5. We opted for this beaut of an organic wine: 1808 Portugal Colheita from the Beira Interior. At €30, this was midway on their price point which seemed excellent value to us. It's a classy spot with a youthful vibe but without any pretensions. Staff were warm, friendly and passionate about the food and drinks they serve. A good introduction to the foodie scene in Lisbon.


The Decadente, Rua São Pedro de Alcântara 81

 

Day 2: Adventures in Belém


Give yourself a full day to explore everything on offer in this part of the city. Located about 7kms to the west, along the southern coast, Belém is home to some of Lisbon's most significant sites. Bear in mind that tourists come out here in their droves every day so be prepared to queue for pretty much everything. Sadly, while the Lisboa Card offers free entry to most of them, it doesn't allow you to skip the queue. Always carry a bottle of water and bring snacks. There aren't many places to stock up in the vicinity so channel your inner boy scout and come prepared.


Getting there:

Train: From Cais do Sodre - exit at Belem station | Tram no. 15

Monument to the Discoveries, Belém Docklands


Insider tip: Monument to the Discoveries

Everyone makes a beeline for the Belém Tower when they get off the train. What they may not realise is that the view from the Monument to the Discoveries is far superior: its viewing platform stands at 56 metres tall and from the top, the Belém Tower is dwarfed in comparison (see image 2 below). The viewing platform is narrow so only a limited number of people can ascend at one time, but trust me, the queue will be FAR shorter than at the other more popular site.

Officially opened in 1960, it was built to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of explorer Henry the Navigator, who discovered the Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde. The location on the Belem docklands was perfectly chosen and it's a striking sight on approach: the figure of Henry the Navigator stands on the prow of an abstracted ship, looking out to sea. The sails appear to bellow out to sea with the force of an unseen wind. It's quite remarkable.

On either side of the monument are two ramps. lined with 32 significant figures from the age of the Discoveries, ascending towards their hero. Maps, weapons and crucifixes are just some of the clues offered to their identities as navigators, cartographers, warriors, writers, colonisers, artists and missionaries. From the viewing platform you are treated to a birds-eye view of the stunning Monastery of San Jeronimo, and get a fantastic overview of its vast scale.

View of Monastery of San Jeronimo from Monument to the Discoveries


Tickets: €10 -adult ( €8.30 with Lisboa Card) Details of pricing and booking link here


Monument to the Discoveries, Av. Brasília, 1400-038



Tower of Belém

It's such an impressive sight on approach, right on the water's edge, where the Tejo river opens out into the Atlantic. But look closer - yes, that is a queue snaking around the corner waiting to enter. We are conflicted. There are so many other things we want to see in Belém but feel like we'd be missing out if we don't visit the tower. And so we join the queue. Wait time is approximately 1 hour, a sign says. There is no shade at all and we feel ourselves being slowly fried in the midday sun. I pay €5 for two scoops of gelato which has pretty much melted before I rejoin Martin in the queue. Not the most promising of starts.

In the end, we got through in about 45 minutes. The verdict? Architecturally it's pretty stunning but I'm not sure if it's worth the wait to go up into the tower. It's worth noting that there is no access to the roof terrace of the tower. The narrow platform below is the highest point that visitors can reach. However it's worth it to get up close and personal with the intriguing architectural details from the first floor veranda, and the third floor viewing platform overlooking the estuary.

The tower dates back to the early 16th century and is a fine example of the distinctive Manuelino style, an expression of Portuguese late Gothic, with exuberant detailing and lavish decoration. Built on the banks of the river, it served as a gateway to the city but also had a defensive function: to protect against attackers approaching from the Tagus and to protect the Jerónimos Monastery.

The tower has five floors, each one connected by a very narrow, winding staircase - claustrophobes beware. There is only one entrance and exit for the stairs so expect to have to queue yet again between floors. On the ground floor, the emphasis on defense is very apparent: each of the sixteen arched window vaults holds a cannon.

To queue or not to queue? Well it depends on what you want from your visit. If you are interested in the history and architecture, then it's absolutely worth the wait. If it's a panoramic viewpoint you're seeking, then maybe consider the Monument to the Discoveries as an alternative, and enjoy the tower from a vantage point on the ground.


Tickets: Tickets: €9 - adult. Free with Lisboa Card (note - this does not allow you to skip the queue)


Belém Tower, Av. Brasília, 1400-038



Jerónimos Monastery (Monasterio de los Jerónimos de Belém)

There are two absolutely unmissable tourist sights in Lisbon: one is the Castel Sao Jorge and the other is the Jerónimos Monastery. Like the Belém Tower, this has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983 and boasts a similarly extravagant Manuelino-style of architecture.

We are somewhat distracted by the magnificent façade on approach that we fail to notice the even-more enormous queue that runs the entire length of the building. Yet again there are hoards of holy teenagers who appear to be surgically attached to their enormous flags, displaying little understanding of the concept of queuing. But did it put us off? Of course not. We placidly took our spot at the back and waited in line for almost an hour. And was it worth it? A resounding yes.

Interesting fact: the monastery was built on the site of a former hermitage where reputedly Vasco da Gama and his sailors prayed the night before setting sail on their voyage of discovery to India. It was built to commemorate his successful voyage, and one of its biggest selling points is his tomb which today lies in the Church of Santa Maria. Sadly the interior of the church was off-limits on the day of our visit but we were blown away by the level of sculptural detailing on the enormous exterior portals.

However, the magnificent cloisters more than made up for the disappointment. In keeping with the theme of voyage and discovery, you'll notice recurring sea motifs, and columns resembling huge coils of rope. Gargoyles and fantastical creatures jut out of pillars while hidden faces emerge between elaborate architectural detailing. The evening light cast a golden glow across the tiles, simultaneously creating dramatic Gothic shadows.

Tickets: €10 -adult. Free with Lisboa Card (note - this does not allow you to skip the queue)


Monasterio de los Jerónimos de Belém, Praça do Império 1400-206




Pastéis de Belém

Time for a well-earned treat to make up for the endless queuing. This is the original home of the pastel de nata. They've been making those iconic custard tarts here since 1827 and I can attest to the fact they are an absolute work of art.

Insider Tip: Instead of queueing outside for a takeaway tart and coffee, head inside for a sit-down treat instead. The place looks tiny from the outside but appearances are very deceptive. It extends way back into a number of seating areas. We were served in minutes, our coffees arriving in the cutest cups with that iconic blue tile pattern, accompanied by two pastel de nata, though here, of course, they are referred to as Pastéis de Belém. Despite being a hotspot for tourists, two coffees and two tarts were less than €5.


Pastéis de Belém, Rua de Belém 84, - 92



Incredible rooftop views from the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT)

This was one of the best finds of our trip - a panoramic viewpoint which we pretty much had all to ourselves. And not a holy teenager in sight. Head east out of Belém until you come to the dramatic Ponte Pedonal e de Ciclovia do MAAT. The slick steel and concrete overpass connects the roof of the museum to the Largo Marquês de Angeja and has a pedestrian walkway, a cycle path and is wheelchair-accessible.

Rooftop, Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT)


The Ponte 25 de Abril forms a backdrop and the views across the bay from the top are expansive. It's completely free to access too. Flaking out on the roof, taking advantage of a much-needed breeze from the sea, was easily one of the most chilled-out things we did on the entire trip.


If you can manage to scrape yourself off the roof, make your way down to the waterfront to admire the sleekly stunning building in all its glory. The best time to visit is towards sunset, when the light is low in the sky.


This also means you've timed your visit perfectly for a pre-dinner cocktail or two at their beautiful terrace cocktail bar - there can be few more impressive places to sit and drink in the views as the sun sets. It's a gorgeous spot with fabulous service too. Cocktails are super but I'd also highly recommend their sparkling Rosé. It's a cracker.

MAAT Cafe and Kitchen, Museu maat, Av. Brasília, 1300-598



Taberna Dos Ferreiros

It's no exaggeration to say this is one of the best meals I've ever eaten in my life. As is often the case, the humblest of settings sometimes belie the five-star quality of food on offer. Appearances can certainly be deceptive: it looks like an ordinary little taverna with slightly too-bright lighting and a TV playing quietly in the corner. But the food. Oh my!! This is fine dining of the highest standards with the best of ingredients. Each dish was innovative, exciting and absolutely delectable.

What we had: a traditional cod dish with egg. Looks wild - tastes absolutely incredible. A deconstructed Caprese with the creamiest Mozzarella and the juiciest tomatoes. The tuna tartare was perfection but my main course was the star of the show - a sesame-encrusted salmon on a bed of leek purée & hollandaise sauce. Hands-down, this is one of the nicest things I have ever eaten. We were absolutely stuffed but had to order a dessert. Peanut butter mousse and ice-cream in a brandysnap basket- how could you not? It was every bit as good as it sounds. The chocolate mousse was also exquisite, the presentation superb.

This place is a gem, located down a side street away from the masses in Belém. It's also ridiculously good value - three-courses with a bottle of wine and water came in at €80 before tip. I would happily have paid double. Such lovely warm service too. A flawless 10 / 10


Taberna Dos Ferreiros, Tv. Ferreiros a Belém 5

 

Carmo Convent and Archaeological Museum

Our third day in Lisbon started with a visit to the Carmo Convent. What was once the city's most significant Medieval building is now a hauntingly beautiful shell. A casualty of the earthquake of 1755 which destroyed much of the city, its roof collapsed but astonishingly its grand Gothic arches still remain, giving us a sense of its original scale.

Remarkably, much of the intricate sculptural detailing on the inner walls and windows also survived, creating an outdoor gallery for visitors to enjoy. Here you'll see some fine examples of the Manueline or Portuguese Gothic style, from its artworks to its ornate arches and architecture.

In the summer, the building comes to life once more when its ruins provide an atmospheric and theatrical backdrop for open-air concerts and other events.

Inside the sacristy is a small archaeological museum showcasing an eclectic collection of artworks including a Roman sarcophagus, a Baroque tomb, examples of traditional azulejos, and most eerily of all, the mummified remains of a Peruvian boy and girl, which I found quite disturbing.

Admission is €5.00. 20% discount with the Lisboa Card.

Carmo Convent, Largo do Carmo, 1200-092



Quiosque de Lisboa

One of the coolest things about Lisbon is the number of outdoor kiosks dotted around the city, serving snacks, coffee, beer, wine and cocktails at cheap and cheerful prices. The first one opened in Rossio Square in 1869, the trend took off and now there are dozens of them in every part of Lisbon.

Some are fancier and more ornate than others, like the Quiosque do Carmo, located at the entrance to the Carmo Convent. Click here for the lowdown on some of the best ones




Castelo de São Jorge

On the summit of São Jorge hill stands one of the most iconic emblems of Lisbon: the imposing castle of São Jorge. Arguably the city's most significant tourist attraction, it's absolutely unmissable, not least for the panoramic 360 degree views across the city. Nowhere else comes close.

What began as a small fortress for the Visigoths in the 5th century was transformed throughout the years, reaching its pinnacle from the 13th - 16th century as the seat of the royal palace. There is no doubt that defense was the primary consideration in its construction - the site boasts an incredible eleven towers, enclosed within a thick perimeter wall, with a barbican and a moat strategically placed as an additional protection against invaders.

Visitors can access most of the towers via external staircases, each granting their own unique viewing point. Some are joined by narrow external walkways with a low wall and a sheer drop below - not for the faint hearted.


From a distance, the citadel appears to sit on a cushion of trees, overlooking the river. To fully appreciate its scale and strategic position, make your way to the previously mentioned viewing point at Miradouro da Senhora do Monte.

Today, the inner courtyards and gardens are incredibly peaceful, the noise from the city below replaced by birdsong. Cobbled squares are home to olive trees and fragrant plants and flowers, while a series of unusual squawks drew our attention to a family of peacocks nesting in the branches above our heads.

The main square, the Place of Arms, offers an unrivaled panorama of the city and the Tagus estuary.

Tip: buy your tickets online in advance to skip the queues.


Castelo de São Jorge, R. de Santa Cruz do Castelo, 1100-129



Le Jardin d'Eden

Dinner that evening was in the stunning surrounds of Le Jardin d'Eden. Located on the north-west outskirts of the city in the neighbourhood of Campo de Ourique, it is well worth the trek for a flawless dining experience. Serving up a fusion of French and Asian cuisine with the finest of locally-sourced ingredients, it's a fine dining experience but without the attitude or pretensions. Or price tag for that matter.

But it's the setting that's the real star of the show. Be sure to book a table in the garden lounge, for what has to be one of the most beautiful and romantic dining experiences in the city. Picture the scene: it's Friday night in Lisbon and the evening is just kicking off at 9pm. We are brought to our table as a carefully-curated jazz playlist provides a soundtrack. We are seated in a cosy, candlelit corner table, underneath a canopy of overhanging plants twinkling with tiny fairy lights, like stars overhead. We order cocktails and I opt for the Amour, one of their signature blends with vodka, hibiscus, orange blossom, Aperol and Champagne. It tastes like heaven. And in that moment, everything is perfect.

Appetites sufficiently whetted, it's time to delve into their culinary delights. Here's what we had: tuna tartare with a kick of chili, and cod in tom-yam sauce with coconut rice (me). Burrata with aubergine, and duck magret served on a bed of mash (him). Flavours were fresh and zingy with ingredients of excellent quality. We just about made room for a shared Pain Perdu. And then immediately regretted just ordering one - it was utterly sublime.

If you're unfamiliar with Portuguese wines, allow the sommelier to choose for you. Ours was smooth as silk and on the money. A snip at €24 a bottle too. Le Jardin d'Eden is everything we were looking for in a restaurant. The setting is classy, the atmosphere relaxed, and the food and drinks were an absolute delight.


Jardin d'Eden, R. Correia Teles 107A



Mercado de Campo de Ourique

You can't leave this area without checking out the Mercado de Campo de Ourique, a less-touristy alternative to the Time Out market in Cais do Sodré to the south. It's cheaper too. You'll be spoilt for choice with a variety of cuisines, from traditional Portuguese to Japanese. There are also lots of little bars serving up wine, beer and cocktails. Late on Friday evening, the place was buzzing and filled with locals, drinking, eating and even dancing as a DJ played some tunes in the central area. Pull up a high stool at one of the counters and watch the evening unfold, Lisboa-style.

Getting there: tram 25 & 28 | Bus 709


Mercado de Campo de Ourique, R. Coelho da Rocha 104, 1350-075

 

Saturday morning and all is quiet on the streets of Lisbon. A mass exodus of World Youth Day delegates and we finally get a glimpse of what the city might be like on an average summer's day. We've already decided we're going to come back again. But perhaps off-peak season next time.


Fauna e Flora

Brunch on our last day in Lisbon was at the hipster Fauna e Flora. Beloved of Instagrammers for its pared-back Scandi décor and overhanging plants, it's worth visiting for its bagels alone: perfectly crispy on top but light and airy in the middle. Order the halloumi and avocado bagel - it's superb.

There are a few branches dotted around the city but we opted for the Santos branch in the picturesque Estrela neighbourhood. Leave time to explore its narrow, hilly streets lined with colourful tiled houses and washing blowing on clothes lines overhead.

Fauna e Flora, Rua da Esperança 33


Calouste Gulbenkian Museum

Our last cultural outing in Lisbon was to the fabulous Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in the Campolide district to the north of the city. Easily accessible on the metro, here's what you can expect: stunning architecture housing an incredible art collection hidden away in a tranquil garden setting.

Considered to be one of the most important private collections in the world, the permanent collection showcases over 6,000 works of art, dating from antiquity until the early 20th century. Don't miss the Egyptian, Islamic and eastern rooms at the start - there are some truly fantastic artefacts on view like these Egyptian figures which date back to the 6th century BC.

Also be sure to look out for the stunning Art Deco screen by Jean Dunand.

There are too many highlights to mention but it's worth noting what an astute collector Gulbenkian was. Here you'll find some fine examples of the work of Titian and Rembrandt, alongside some lesser-known works by Dégas, Fantin-Latour and Monet.

I lingered for a long time over the exquisite works by Corot, and was awestruck by the magnificent Turners. I particularly loved this smug bust of French playwright Molière and the cheeky painting of Don Quixote.

Low cantilevered ceilings extend into the natural surroundings while large picture-windows reveal garden views. In addition to the permanent collection, the temporary exhibitions are also worth visiting.

Tickets: €14 - all-inclusive (permanent and temporary exhibitions) | 20% discount with Lisboa card. Full details here


Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Av. de Berna 45A, 1067-001


Getting there: Metro: São Sebastião (blue and red lines) and Praça de Espanha (blue line)



Eating Bear

Our last lunch in Lisbon was in the bizarrely titled Eating Bear in the buzzy heart of the Baixa area.

A cool little wine bar serving up Portuguese-style tapas and Italian favourites with an innovative twist. Our visit here was far too short as we had a train to catch but it made an impression on us. Our salads were delicious and beautifully presented, paired with a deliciously refreshing sparkling wine which put a pep in my step for the final leg of our journey.


Eating Bear, R. da Madalena 62/64

 

Part 2: Sintra


And just like that our time in Lisbon was over. We'd seen so much, yet it felt like we'd barely scratched the surface. It's a city deserving of more time, and worthy of a longer return visit. We made our way to the striking Oriente station and boarded the train to Sintra.

Sintra is one of the most-popular day-trip destinations from Lisbon, situated about 28kms to the west of the city. It can be reached by train, either from Rossio train station in the historic centre, or from Oriente station to the east. It should be noted that Rossio is a very busy transport hub and the trains can be packed with day trippers so it's worth going the extra few stops on the Metro to board the Oriente train instead. The train station is absolutely beautiful and there are some fantastic mosaics on the underground walls.

Sintra, however, did not live up to our expectations. While it's a pretty town, we were left wondering why people flock here in their droves. Of course, it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the surrounding hills are dotted with dazzling palaces and castles. There's no denying how impressive this all appears, in theory. However, it's in the practicalities that it falls short. Very short.

At first glance, it's charming and picturesque, with narrow winding and hilly streets. And lots of steps. Unfortunately, it has become entirely dysfunctional as a town, both for tourists and locals alike, and its infrastructure can no longer cope with the volume of visitors that pass through every day. Streets are one-way, and permanently clogged with barely moving traffic. It's not advisable to drive here as you would simply be adding to the congestion, but public transport options are pretty much non-existent. Most people rely on Uber or Bolt which are inexpensive but drivers don't like taking people to the major sites as traffic is too heavy... Can you see why this might be a tad trying?

It's easy to get around the centre on foot but if you want to visit the palaces in the hills above, that's when you'll need to have your patient hat on. With the exception of the Sintra National Palace and the Quinta da Regaleira, all of the main tourist sights are located high in the hills above the city. Not particularly far, within 3-5kms, but the steep uphill climbs prove to be pretty challenging in the searing summer heat, not the mention humidity.

But before delving further into this, that's not to say there weren't positive aspects. We stayed in a fabulous guesthouse, had a wonderful meal and enjoyed visiting the Quinta da Regaleira palace. The Quinta do Lobos guesthouse is located on the outskirts of town, in the middle of the national park. Surrounded by trees and nature, it's an oasis of tranquility and calm.

A calming environment was much-needed after our epic trip to get there. Though only a few kilometres from the train station, we opted for a Bolt to avoid having to drag our luggage across the uphill terrain. Well, you know what they say about best-laid plans? Our poor taxi driver missed the turn for our hotel and our short journey turned into an epic 15 kilometre circle of the city in peak congestion because of the one-way system. What should have taken ten minutes took almost an hour. So far so frazzled, though he didn't charge us for detour.

Our stress soon melted away in the lovely surrounds of Quinta dos Lobos. The entire place is elegantly and tastefully decorated, jazz playing softly in the foyer, while bedrooms are large with big comfy beds and good-quality linen. Best of all is the powerful rain shower with a view - a window offers a glimpse of the apple trees in the garden with birds singing sweetly above.

French doors lead onto a cobbled pathway through the garden. A clearing in the trees reveals some truly stunning views of the surrounding countryside, and tables and chairs have been provided for guests to fully enjoy the natural setting. Coffee cup in hand, I breathed in the fresh air, listening to the chorus of birdsong in the trees above. Not a bad way to start the day.

Breakfast is served in the beautiful dining room, French doors offering views of the garden beyond. It's a simple but tasty continental offering - expect fresh bread, cheeses, meats, yoghurt and fruit. Guesthouse staff are warm and friendly, and made us instantly feel at home.


Quinta dos Lobos, Caminho dos Frades 1, 2710-560



Quinta da Regaleira

Our first cultural excursion was to Quinta da Regaleira, just a short five-minute walk from the guesthouse. This wildly extravagant villa dates to the late 19th century, an eclectic hodge-podge of architectural styles ranging from Manueline to Renaissance; Medieval to Classical.

The main attraction is the vast garden estate with ornamental lakes, follies, a chapel and a number of forested pathways lined with exotic plants and flowers.

Rumour has it that the owner was a member of the Knights Templar, and that the grounds were often used for secret ceremonies. At the heart of the site is the enigmatic Initiation Well, spiraling downwards into the earth, 27 metres below ground. It's suggested that this had a role to play in the initiation rites of the masons.

Right at the bottom, accessible by a spiral staircase, you'll find a hidden network of tunnels with stone walls, connecting it to other monuments around the park. One tunnel brought us to a cave beneath a dramatically cascading waterfall.

There are lots of quirky features of interest dotted across the grounds. Give yourself at least a few hours to fully explore the estate. Make sure to book your tickets online to avoid the long queues at the ticket desk.

Quinta da Regaleira, R. Barbosa du Bocage 5, 2710-567


Incomum Luis Santos


Another Sintra highlight was the incredible meal we enjoyed in Incomum Luis Santos, a popular restaurant serving up traditional Portuguese and Italian dishes with a contemporary twist. From start to finish we were impressed by the attention to detail with every course. From the sourdough bread with olive oil, to the mesclun salad and marinated salmon, the ingredients were of the highest quality. Service was warm and professional, the atmosphere relaxed.

Star of the show was the linguine nero with prawns- sheer perfection in a bowl and an incredible mix of flavours. Subtle and rich, this was everything I want from a pasta dish. A group of beautiful young Italians were seated at the table next to us. The girl takes my lead and orders the linguine too. She takes a bite, her eyes widen and she exclaims loudly "oh madonna"... while licking her lips. If it gets a thumbs-up from the Italians, then that's good enough for us.


Advance booking is essential.


Incomum Luis Santos, R. Dr. Alfredo da Costa 22, 2710-523

 

Day 2 and things take a downturn. We check out of our lovely guesthouse at 12 with our sights set on the fairytale-like Pena Palace. Tickets are for entry at 2pm so we book an Uber to the train station to drop off our bags. The first driver cancels so we call another. He also cancels. After four further attempts we give up and walk the 3kms to the station, lugging bags up hills and down steep steps. Taxis, it seems, are really not keen to take fares from our end of town, I can only presume because of the one-way system.

Tourist information suggests we take the 494 bus - a circular route taking in some of the main palaces and castles. It costs €12.50 return and is supposed to take 30 minutes to reach the Pena Palace. Note the words 'supposed to'. It's privately-run so does not register with live updates on Google Maps. Queues for boarding are long - so far, so familiar. In the end the 494 takes an unpredicted hour to reach the tourist hotspot. Everyone on board is stressed, and tensions are high. We finally arrive at 2:32, two and a half hours after we left our guesthouse, and are admitted at the main gates. Hooray we think. We've finally made it.

But it turns out that this is as close as we are going to get to the actual palace. We stroll around the lovely grounds at our leisure, eventually arriving at the main palace where there is a sign saying '3pm slot for palace entry'. Apparently the timed-entry refers to the palace, and not entry at the main gates. I have to stress - this is not remotely obvious from the ticket and appears way down the body of the email. Also, no-one mentioned this to us at the main gate.

We explain to the girl taking tickets that it's taken us 2.5 hours to travel the short distance, and that we felt the ticket was misleading. An elderly man in front of us had made the same assumption. We explain that we're flying home that night and ask to be let in at the next slot. She says no. We try to buy for the next slot but it's fully booked for the day. We appeal to her better nature and she dismisses us out of hand. She is incredibly rude. There will be no palace entry that day.

We cut our losses and explore the park instead, climbing through the trees to the High Cross at its summit. The final ascent involves navigating footholds in massive boulders - the view of Pena Palace above is only visible from a precarious position on top of one of them.

We make our descent past the pretty 19th century Temple of the Columns, and head for the 494 bus back to Sintra. We sit in a bar and drink a bottle of Rosé. It's been a heck of a last day, and an unfortunate end to what was an otherwise fantastic trip. If I had to do it all over again, with the benefit of hindsight, we would've stayed the extra two days in Lisbon. In my view, Sintra is vastly overrated and not worth the hassle. Lisbon however was a dream and will be somewhere we return to again and again.


Happy travelling

Karyn xx





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